Even before the progressive rightward swing in Europe*, the people living here had already felt that the left-inclined Danish government was too capitalist (the nationalistic swong today being an extreme in the opposite direction. They prided themselves as standing as a bastion of the political left whose ideas most caught on in the 1970s and 80s. And yet, most people don’t seem to know this part of its story. Its alternative reputation, however, precedes itself – this is the wild child of prim and proper, cool kid Copenhagen (oxymoron I know. Still…)
Whereas the city has compartmentalized creativity, this town embraces creative chaos. Whereas Copenhagen (and Denmark) have a clear no drug policy, soft drugs such as marijuana are sold openly on the main street (Pushers Street) in this place. Whereas Copenhagen is brightly lit, this town enjoys natural light and darkness.
And yet it is located in the heart of Copenhagen. To make things more confusing, this perhaps “un-Danish” town in the heart of the city (a 15 minute walk from the parliament house) shares a symbiotic relationship with Copenhagen with Christiania forming a plank of Denmark’s tourism campaign and Christiania’s inhabitants making most of their income (for survival) from tourism (and here). Despite this, the police and the inhabitants have a violent relationship with each other – witnessed by a youtube channel run by the locals documenting the run-ins with the police.
This is Christiania Freetown, where they consider themselves separate from Denmark and the EU.
My colleagues strongly suggested I check it out, the guides highly encouraged us to. Unlike Tivoli, the encouragement was more nuanced and had more caveats. My colleagues said that it was definitely an experience, the guide said that it was a great place with an unfortunate reputation.
I didn’t need much convincing, I was in.
Christiania is located a short walk away from the trendy Christianshavn district (it is pratically located within the district) and yet it looks a world away from that area.
By the time I had arrived at the free town, the autumn sun had already set (it was barely 3.30pm) and I traced my way into a sidewalk with beautiful graffiti along the walls. If I’m being absolutely honest, had there not been many other people visting the place at the same time as me, I would probably not have gone in that direction into the town.
But enter I did and I was hit with a huge dose of hipness. This was the sort of vibe that more than one cafe in many places have tried to recreate – all the while serving the hippest food trends on the market. The difference was that the vibe here was authentic because the graffiti was not drawn to look hip, the place was not decorated to look hip, it was decorated based on what was available to look nice.
For some reason, reggae and reggaeton music seems popular among the hip.
I like, the music – am I counted as hip?
But these were not the main streets and they were not the main thing that made Christiana popular to the rest of the world. I exited the quiet spot and walked toward the main street.
What gave Christiania its popularity/infamy (depending on how you see it) is Pushers Street. The main street in the town where soft drugs such as weed and hash (cannabis) are sold.
I knew I was in Pushers street because the smell in the air changed, as I got closer the thick odour of weed waffled through my nose. My eyes marked out the green spot in front of me, that was the area marked out as pushers street. There are three rules to the street 1) have fun, 2) do not run, 3) no photography. The first rule is self explanatory, the second is because the police occasionally come in to raid the stalls – however much it claims self-administration, the land still belongs to Denmark – and the sellers and buyers would obviously be heighten to anyone running; the third rule is simply that – everyone knows that an tolerated illegal drug trade is taking place – no one needs picture evidence. And yet it certainly did seem like the have fun rule was a requirement. A tense atmosphere clearly pervaded Pushers Street. The merchants were not the friendlty sort – for obvious reasons – stalls that had military camouflages were selling canabis, stores that did not were selling soft drugs. There were conversations at the side, a man walked to another and handed over a wade of notes.
That may have stopped me from taking pictures, but you don’t think that would have stopped the really intrepid professional and amateurs photographers would you? The guy next to me was obviously trying to take pictures, then a shout came from opposite as a volunteer guard rushed over, “no pictures”… shocked the guy pushed the phone to his ear, “no phone calling, phone calling”
I don’t know what happened to the guy, I walked away… that seemed the smarter thing to do. Something didn’t feel too right. I knew I was supposed to find it cool, but I didn’t. Not at Pusher’s Street. The people felt scared and worried and that was the energy I felt myself feeding off. Maybe it was the darkness, maybe it was the cold winter, but people were huddled together, tour groups stuck to each other, merchants in little sides eyeing the individuals (especially, since these might be the real buyers) and trying to size them up.
The tight stance of drugs has to do with the difficulties the city has had with the law despite the sale of drugs being an open, global secret.
It is a pity that the town is known as a place for drugs, because the intention of the hippies who moved in was not that – whereas the merchants on Pushers Street are constantly on the look out from the police, there is also perhaps some tension between the merchant-residents and the non-merchant residents. The only way to get this story is to go back into history.
Christiania began in 1971 as a squatters’ settlement, after the Danish military left the Christiania district and did nothing to the buildings. There were many squatters in Copenhagen because there was a housing crisis in the city – so in a way, it was poor government administration that led to the creation of a self-governing community. By the time the district was thought of by the politicians the squatters had been on the area so long they had obtained legal right of occupation. The squatters were put under special laws for 35 years and since 2007 were placed under normal Danish law. While living as squatters the people had to find ways to support their environment – the government was not going to give support to squatters – and so the people organised. A town came up, an ideology was embraced that followed the most progressive ideals of the 1970s – freedom, collectivism, less rules-more laissez faire.
To try and get some independence from the government, the residents formed a legal foundation and bought one-third of the land, while renting the other two thirds from the Danish Government. A state of affairs that perhaps keeps everyone relatively happy. Let’s say that Christiania is in no risk of proclaiming independence.
This drew more creative and artsy sorts to the town and allowed a tolerant use of “relaxation aids” – especially marijuana.
However drugs don’t separate themselves easily, and Christiania has had a checkered history with hard drugs. In the late 1970s, both soft (e.g. marijuana) and hard drugs (e.g. heroin) were sold on the main Pushers Street and the hard drugs caused the tragic deaths of 10 people within a year (4 from the community of 900) from drug overdose. Those who dies in Christiania these people lived in the slums of the town – a building called “The Arc of Peace”. This prompted the townsfolk took steps to stop any sale of hard drugs since today.
The entry of hard drugs was not over though. In 1984, biker gangs rode in and tried to take control of parts of the drug trade in town. The wars lead to the deaths of a few people and somehow the residents met in a townhall and managed to force the bikers to leave. But the money from the hard drugs was too lucrative, many more attempts would be made by outside drug groups to enter the market leading to violent deaths in 2005, 2009 and 2016. The police intervened many times, but the hard drug pushers continued to come back.
The mood changed as I left Pushers Street. There were art galleries galore and cafes (I saw at least three) with normal people chilling over a coffee. People laughing and chatting. The vibe was visibly more relaxed and my shoulders relaxed too.
By and large I will say that the idea has managed to create a creative town that is relatively safe. In fac i It felt as though there were more rules in this society than the “free” concept suggested- cars are not allowed to drive in, a gay community was kicked out because the residents did not like though. Perhaps the residents were trying to be even more law-abiding and upstanding individuals so as to prove that the idea could work – in spite of the violence that has happened.
Unfortunately bad news travels further and that is what has given the district its must see notoriety. But for those of us living on the outside, brushing it as either a druggie, hippie have or anarchistic utopia is too simplistic. It’s so many things to so many peoples, drugs was just one part.
ON THE MAP
*I think that for the sake of balance, the article above should be offset by this analysis on globalisation by VisualPolitik.